Tag Archives: votes for women

Broken windows theory: why suffragettes attacked the Post Office

There is an intriguing file in the Royal Mail Archive titled “Malicious damage to Post Office premises by suffragettes” (reference number: POST 30/2528A). Detailed within it are several small stories from the big fight for Vote’s For Women

On 27 June 1912 Miss Jane Short, an art student from Letchworth, broke 11 of the small leaded lights of the front office windows at Hitchin Post Office with a hammer and several stones. Mr Tully, the office’s overseer, found the woman outside being held by a man named Russell, who had taken the hammer from her. The Police then came to take Miss Short to the police station.

Miss Short gave an assurance that she would commit no more damage, but stated that she desired to be locked up. At the insistence of the Postmaster, Mr Gadd, she was not locked up but seen home to Letchworth by a police constable. Miss Short had previously broken the windows at Baldock Post Office for which she was committed for trial.

At about 3am on 28 June 1912 a different woman broke the windows at Ludlow Post Office, causing approximately £5 worth of damage. A newspaper report of her appearance before the magistrates the next morning described her as follows:

The prisoner appeared in the dock stylishly dressed in a blouse, skirt and hat, and appeared to be a young lady of superior education of about 20 years of age. She had a pleasant face and somewhat gentle bearing.

The pleasant-faced lady in question gave her name as Elsie Rachel Helsby of Shrewsbury, but there was some question over her identity as she had given the name Miss Holmes of Hampstead at a local hotel. She was granted bail but refused it, and she was remanded in Shrewsbury Prison.

A subsequent newspaper report details that Miss Helsby smashed the windows with a hammer to which was attached two labels, one reading “Votes for Women”, the other a protest against the force-feeding of suffrage campaigners on hunger strike.

In her defence at the trial Miss Helsby stated that she had been motivated to break the windows because of the treatment of women at Holloway and other prisons, and “in defence of poorly paid women and unhealthy and over-worked children”. She saw the hammer as her only weapon in this fight.

The magistrates decided that Miss Helsby could either be fined for costs and damages or sentenced to 28 days hard labour. Miss Helsby elected for the hard labour and was sent back to Shrewsbury prison.

Also detailed in the file is correspondence concerning who should cover the damages. Ludlow was a sub-post office and its premises were leased by the sub-postmaster. The landlord of the premises, Mr Chubb, was liable for the damages to the window but refused to pay arguing that it had been an institution of government (the General Post Office) which had been attacked in this instance. This argument was eventually accepted by the GPO.

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

A hand-drawn diagram of the broken window at Ludlow Post Office. (POST 30/2528a)

In the early 20th Century the state-owned GPO was one of the largest businesses and employers in the world. It controlled the mail, telegraph and telephone services throughout the United Kingdom, and was vital to everyday life. With a post office branch a feature of almost every high street in the country it was one of the most visible signs of government and authority, and was thus an ideal target for suffrage campaigners. The First World War interrupted the suffrage campaign, and it would not be until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom had the same voting rights as men.

– Alison Bean, Web Officer

Suffragette “human letters”

This week there have been a number of commemorations and memorial events marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffrage campaigner who famously ran on to the course at the Epsom Downs Derby and was knocked down by the King’s horse. While Davison’s was one of the most extreme acts of protest in the campaign for votes for women, other lesser-known stunts are just as noteworthy.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the East Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street, 23rd February 1909.

The Royal Mail Archive holds a file on this event (POST 30/1655a), which includes a Post Office Express Service form showing that the suffragettes were charged 3d and that the recipient did not sign for the “letters” delivered by A.S. Palmer.

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

Post Office Express Service form for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

As per Post Office regulations, Palmer had to write a report explaining why he had not obtained a signature for the delivery of the “letters”. This is also within the file; it reads:

23 February 1909

The Postmaster,

Sir, I beg to state in reply to the above report that I took the Ladies to Mr Asquith’s house but the police would not let them go in. I went in but the butler would not sign the form because he did not have the letters to sign for, because the ladies themselves said they were the letters. And Mr Asquith refused to see them.

I am

Sir

Your Obedient Servant

A.S. Palmer

[Messenger number] 25

A.S Palmer's report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

A.S Palmer’s report explaining why he did not obtain a signature for the delivery of the suffragettes, 23rd February 1909. (POST 30/1655a)

This fascinating and little-known story of women’s suffrage was the subject of a podcast featuring Dr Katherine Rake. Listen and download BPMA Podcast #3 – Human Letters for free from BPMA Podcast, iTunes or Soundcloud.

See large scans of the documents mentioned in this blog in our Flickr set Human Letters.

Stories from the Store

Last week we invited the public to venture off the beaten track and explore the treasures of our Museum Store at a special after-hours event as part of Museums at Night 2013.

Our Museum Store houses a wonderful collection of the BPMA’s larger exhibits including vehicles and letter boxes. These objects and the stories they tell were brought to life by the Big Wheel Theatre Company in the guise of a suffragette “human letter” and a World War I soldier postman.

Visitors also had the chance to get crafty in workshops with Craft Guerrilla, see our new “Blitz Hill Box”, which contains artefacts from World War II, and indulge in some tea-party style refreshments. Scroll down to view photos from the night.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

Before Museums at Night we asked you to guess ‘What’s in the suitcase?’ All was revealed at our Stories from the Store event on Thursday 16 May.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

The suitcase opened to reveal the story of how the post office went to war. In 1939 the General Post Office was the biggest employer in the country. It played a vital role to keep communication going on the home front and abroad.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Two visitors explore the suitcase, and share their memories of the ‘Save for Victory’ campaign. This public appeal encouraged people to save for the war effort.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Throughout the event stories from the postal past were brought to life by Roland and George from the Big Wheel Theatre Company.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

Roland and George enlisted help from the audience to tell the story of the ‘human letter’. In 1909 two suffragettes ‘posted’ themselves to 10 Downing Street.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

The suffragettes took advantage of a clause in the postal regulations which allowed an individual to be delivered by express delivery. Their aim was to gain publicity for the campaign to gain the vote for women.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

An audience member takes on the role of the unwitting post boy charged with delivering his human letters to the prime minster.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

The suffragettes were intercepted by a police constable who insisted the ‘letter’ had to be returned to the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

After all that acting, our visitors were invited to a tea party, with complimentary refreshments served by Hannah, our glamorous Community Learning Officer.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Craft Guerilla were also on hand stitching up a storm, helping visitors sew their own suffragette rosette.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Visitors could also wander amongst our collection and discover more stories from the store.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

Before home time there was one more performance from Roland, telling the story of the Post Office Rifles regiment in the First World War.

We run regular tours of the Museum Store but these sell out quickly. More tickets will be available next week so keep checking our website for details.

Grandpa England – The Public and Private Life of George V 100 Years On

On 21 October PhD candidate Matthew Glencross, who is working in the Royal Archives on the role of monarchy in the early 20th Century, will speak at the BPMA about King George V. Matthew kindly sent us the following preview of his talk.

King George V

King George V

Grandpa England, the name which the young Princess Elizabeth affectionately called her elderly grandfather in her younger years, in many ways sums up the man. In a twenty five year reign George V looked over Great Britain and the British Empire with an almost paternal instinct as the 458 million people who looked to him as King/Emperor went through much change.

His accession saw the pinnacle of Imperial Pomp and ceremony with the Delhi Durbar in 1911, when he became the only British monarch to be crowned Emperor of India, whilst the closing years of his reign saw the Empire begin its transformation into the Commonwealth with the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

At home George saw women being given the vote in the UK for the first time as well as the establishment of the Irish Free State. He also welcomed in Britain’s first Labour government, which although reluctant at first, he would later confess to his diary that Ramsay Macdonald was his favourite Prime Minister.

However, his reign is arguably most famed for the bloodshed of the First World War to which he uttered this simple line to the troops in the frontline, “I cannot share your hardships, but my heart is with you every hour of the day.” A sentiment he supported with regular visits to the soldiers in the trenches.

Therefore, Grandpa England makes a fitting title to this talk which will sweep over the late King’s life from his younger days as a carefree Sailor Prince to his final years in the shadow of an approaching European conflict. A man who watched over Britain as she passed through some of the most difficult times of the early 20th century, one hundred years since his accession we remember him.

Booking details for Grandpa England can be found on our website.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post

From pepper in the letters to postcard propaganda, the history of suffragettes has more sticky situations than a book of stamps.

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

US stamp commemorating Votes for Women

The new foyer display at The Women’s Library, Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores how suffragettes saw the Post Office as both a means of mass communication and a symbol of the oppressive male Government; as friend and simultaneously foe.

During the campaign to win women the vote, militant and moderate suffragettes alike used and attacked the postal system to increase the momentum of their campaign and to ensure frequent media coverage. And with over 32,500 pillar boxes in place by 1900, the scope for direct action was almost without limits.

Militant Tactics

A letter damaged by suffragette action

A letter damaged by suffragette action

Members of the WSPU, including the Pankhursts, smashed post office windows, poured acid in pillar boxes, set fire to post boxes and put pepper in letters addressed to anti-suffrage MPs.

The suffragettes Daisy Solomon and Elspeth McClellan even posted themselves to Prime Minister Asquith, with demands for the vote written across them like human letters.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post includes a fascinating selection of postcards, stamps and audio accounts from those who took part in some of the most daring postal dramas as well as the world’s first suffrage stamp, the prison diary of a suffragette charged with smashing post office windows, newspaper cuttings and the world’s earliest known suffrage postcard.

Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post is at The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, Old Castle Street, London E1 7NT until October. For further details please see the Women’s Library website.

Fe:MAIL Event: Suffrage Postal Campaigns
Tuesday 11 May, 7pm (60 minutes)
£8/£6 concessions

Norman Watson, postal historian and co-curator of Fe:MAIL, Suffragettes and the Post, explores one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of the post: how the suffrage movement exploited the mail service. Using postcards, letters and photographs he examines the insightful and sometimes curious ways in which Edwardian campaigners embraced this new mass communication system.

For further information on this event please see the Women’s Library website.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. The theme for IWD 2010 is “Equal rights, equal opportunities, progress for all”, so in celebration here’s a look at how female equality campaigners have been represented on British stamps. 

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

50th anniversary of Votes for Women stamp (1968)

Fittingly, the first woman commemorated on a British stamp was suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, as part of a 1968 commemorative celebrating the 50th anniversary of Votes for Women.

Within our Archive we hold all artwork submitted for the 1968 Votes for Women stamp. The issued stamp was designed by Clive Abbot, and is based on a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst which was erected in Victoria Tower Gardens, near the Palace of Westminster. However, the instructions to the artists invited to submit designs for this stamp (Abbott, M.C. Farrar-Bell, David Gentleman and Jeffrey Matthews of Harrison & Sons) had something very different in mind.

It was suggested that the stamp have “a shadowy background of the House of Commons with a pictorial representation of two women, one in 1918 dress, the other in 1968 dress, dropping their votes in a ballot box”. Two designs along these lines were submitted by M.C. Farrar-Bell, but were rejected.

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by M.C. Farrar-Bell

Jeffrey Matthews submitted a design which differed slightly from the instructions, incorporating the House of Commons and a ballot box, but also a laurel wreath, a symbol of the Women’s Social & Political Union and of victory, and a scroll motif suggestive of the banners, flags, and sashes of the suffragettes.

Clive Abbott and David Gentleman both submitted designs based on this famous photograph showing Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest at a protest. Gentleman also submitted another design, based on a photograph such as this (there are many similar photographs showing suffragettes with sandwich boards), but this was also rejected. (We’ll be making more of the artwork from this issue available in the future as part of the Stamp Artwork Project.)

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Unadopted design for Votes for Women stamp by David Gentleman

Emmeline Pankhurst and the theme of women’s rights have been celebrated several times more on British stamps, in 1999, as part of The Citizen’s Tale issue, in 2006, when a portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst was used as part of the National Portrait Gallery issue, and, as long time readers of this blog will remember, in 2008 when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and wife of former Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, appeared on the Women of Distinction issue.

A trio of women's suffrage stamps

A trio of women's suffrage stamps: Votes for Women stamp (1999), Emmeline Pankhurst portrait (2006) and Millicent Garrett Fawcett stamp (2008)

The Women of Distinction issue also featured Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to become a Doctor in Britain and the first female Mayor in England, family planning pioneer Marie Stopes, Member of Parliament and women’s rights campaigner Eleanor Rathbone, black political activist Claudia Jones, who organised the first Notting Hill Carnival, and Barbara Castle who piloted the equal pay act.

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Women of Distinction presentation pack (2008)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Elizabeth Fry stamp from the Social Reformers issue (1976)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Hannah More stamp from Aboltion of the Slave Trade issue (2007)

Other female equality campaigners who have been represented on stamps include the champion of women prisoners Elizabeth Fry, whose work was commemorated as part of the Social Reformers issue of 1976 (designed by David Gentleman), and poet and campaigner Hannah More, who appeared on a stamp released in 2007 as part of the Abolition of the Slave Trade issue. More’s anti-slavery poems are considered to some of the most important written during the abolitionist period, and part of one of them, The Sorrows of Yamba, can be seen in the background of the Hannah More commemorative stamp.

The most recent female equality campaigners to appear on British stamps were pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Judy Fryd, founder of Mencap and campaigner for mentally handicapped children, who both appeared in last year’s Eminent Britons issue.

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd

From the Eminent Britons stamp issue (2009): Mary Wollstonecraft and Judy Fryd

Human Letters: The Post Office and women’s suffrage

Earlier this year Dr Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society spoke at the BPMA about women’s suffrage and other equality campaigns. This talk is now available through our podcast. But if the connection between the women’s suffrage movement and the British postal service doesn’t seem immediately obvious, all will be explained. 

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

“Human letters” – Telegraph messenger boy A.S. Palmer delivers Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan to 10 Downing Street.

On 23rd February 1909 two suffragettes, Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan, posted themselves to 10 Downing Street, in an attempt to deliver a message personally to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. At this time Post Office regulations allowed individuals to be “posted” by express messenger, so the two women went to the West Strand Post Office and were placed in the hands of A.S. Palmer, a telegraph messenger boy, who “delivered” them to Downing Street. There, an official refused to sign for the “human letters” and eventually Miss Solomon and Miss McLellan were returned to the offices of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Another connection to both the Post Office and women’s suffrage was Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the wife of the political economist, suffrage campaigner, Liberal MP and Postmaster General (1880-1884) Henry Fawcett. At the time of the human letters incident Millicent was the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She and her organisation were more moderate campaigners than the Women’s Social and Political Union, but eventually they achieved their goal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Achievement series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett who was honoured with a stamp in last year’s Women of Distinction series.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett is regarded as having been instrumental in the campaign for votes for women, in particular the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed women over 30 the right to vote if they were married to a member of the Local Government Register, as well as women to enter parliament on an equal basis with men.

Garrett Fawcett’s work and that of the NUWSS lives on in the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay, pensions, poverty, justice and politics. In her talk, Dr Katherine Rake outlines the Society’s work, giving both a sobering and optimistic appraisal of what has been achieved.

To find out more about this and our other podcasts visit www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast.

The education pack Messages Through Time (suitable for Key Stage 3 history students) contains colour facsimile archive documents related to the human letters and can be downloaded from our website.